LEWISTOWN - Since 2004, American Prairie's goal has been to create the largest nature preserve in the contiguous United States. And late last year, the organization opened a National Discovery Center in Lewistown where visitors can learn about the importance of grassland ecosystems and efforts to conserve them.
“The purpose of this center is to give people an opportunity to experience what the prairie is like, without having to make the really long, really muddy, really snowy trip up to the prairie,” said Discovery Center coordinator Anna Schale.
The center, which opened in November, is home to various exhibits including theaters, immersive experiences, and interactive displays. It’s a central gathering place for visitors to the prairie from around the world.
The exhibits are geared toward all age groups, with a special goal to educate children.
“We really hope to attract that under-10 demographic to come and and learn about the prairie in a very interactive way,” said American Prairie CEO Alison Fox.
So why Lewistown?
“It is a unique place to have a National Discovery Center,” said David Cunningham, the center's director. “But we wanted to be fairly close to the Prairie so we can get people to come in here to learn more. And then it's just a hop, skip, and a jump up to the area the Prairie is.”
The center is in the historic Power Mercantile building in downtown Lewistown. In addition to the exhibits, half of the facility will serve as a multi-use event center for community gatherings.
“Folks have been coming in with wildlife groups and many, many others,” Cunningham said. “And we're also going to do some of our programming in this space. And we're getting that cranked up pretty soon. We're very excited about it.”
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Some of the planned programming includes Prairie Mornings for children, a prairie lecture and speaker series, and “Echo Critters” featuring animals from ZooMontana.
The center encourages visitors and locals alike to explore and appreciate an ecosystem which is often taken for granted.
“I think the prairie can sometimes be a hard sell. It's not quite as captivating as the Tetons or other iconic landscapes that we think of,” Schale said. “So I think the purpose of this space is to show people why the prairie is important and why it's unique and why it's special. And so I hope that anybody that comes here leaves with the understanding that the prairie is incredibly under-appreciated and under-protected, and that it's incredibly beautiful and unique.”
The National Discovery Center is at 302 W. Main Street in Lewistown; click here to visit the website.